How Prison Telecommunications Work

By: Jane McGrath

Phone use in prisons is a source of greatcontention and debate.
Phone use in prisons is a source of greatcontention and debate.
Aaron Lambert-Pool/Getty Images

In April 2008, student journalist James Karl Buck was covering a protest outside an Egyptian jail when he was arrested. Thankfully, a one-word Twitter post from his cell phone was his get-out-of-jail-free card -- he was able to alert friends to his predicament [source: Simon]. Surprisingly, the police there let him keep his phone while incarcerated. Usually inmates aren't so lucky.

­As telecommunication technologies advance, they pose as many challenges as opportunities for society. It doesn't take kids long, for instance, to get a hold of the latest iPhone or BlackBerry device and use them as "learning aids" on tests, much to the chagrin of teachers. And, if high school is enough to make kids desperate to connect in any and every way possible, you can bet real imprisonment fuels the same behavior.


As it turns out, telecommunications can be just as frustrating to regulate in prisons as in high schools, only the implications are far more dangerous. For instance, prison inmates can use the phone to conduct illegal activities, such as arranging drug trafficking on the outside and smuggling drugs into the prison, or even arranging the murder of informants and judges [source: Fine]. Cases of inmates getting a hold of contraband cell phones have plagued prisons around the world.

Prisoners are customarily allowed limited use of phones. But how connected should prisoners be? In the U.S., that question has spurred heated debate between civil liberties activists and prison authorities. Lawsuits have sprung up throughout the United States about the disproportionate costs of collect calls from prisons to families of inmates.

Do U.S. inmates have a constitutional right to use the phone? On the next page, we'll explore what the courts have said about telecommunications in prisons.



Using the Prison Telephone: Prisoners' Rights

Inmates have taken many prison phone useissues to court.
Inmates have taken many prison phone useissues to court.
Tom Grill/Getty Images

You have the right to remain silent. But do you have the right to remain connected via telephone? Movies and TV shows commonly depict the prisoner demanding his right to one phone call. But in actuality, phone use in prisons varies widely. Prisoners must be allowed reasonable access to an attorney, but otherwise, phone rules are largely up to the discretion of the individual prisons or states.

When prisons began allowing inmates to use the phone, they began imposing restrictions on that use. In the U.S., states can institute laws to protect a prisoner's rights to phone use. But according to the federal courts, prisoners can't hide behind the Constitution to use the phone. The First Amendment's right to free speech clause does not give prisoners unrestricted access to a phone, even if it does allow minimal access. Often, prisons consider phone calls perks or privileges, rather than a guaranteed right (excluding certain exceptions, such as contacting an attorney).


Because it's a perk, prisoners can lose phone privileges as punishment for bad behavior. Feeling wronged, many of these prisoners have attempted to sue the prison for legal redress, but often to no avail. Federal courts have commonly cited the fact that, even when prisons deny phone privileges, the inmates are often still free to receive visits from people or send and receive letters, so their ability to communicate is not unreasonably restricted. Also, because of the many illegal activities that can be arranged over the phone, including drug deals, murder orders and prison breaks, the courts have often upheld the right of prisons to restrict phone use as a reasonable security measure.

Despite the disparities among prison telephone regulations, most prisons share some common ground rules for their inmates. For instance, prisons maintain that inmates must make only collect calls. Also, prisons may request the inmate submit a list of 10 people he or she can call. In addition, prisons also will often stipulate that inmates cannot receive incoming calls unless there is an emergency.

Prisons' phone regulations are not alike. Take a look at a few extremes:

  • On the stricter side, Texas state prisons lay out in their offenders' handbook that the inmate is not permitted the perk of phone use unless he or she is engaged in full-time work (such as productive maintenance labor), school or treatment. In addition, phone calls are restricted to five minutes and requests to make a phone call must be made in writing. The request also must include the purpose of the call and the name and relation of the person to be contacted [source: TDCJ].
  • Salt Lake County, Utah regulations, on the other hand, allow 15 minute conversations and don't stipulate a restriction on how often prisoners can make these calls [source: Salt Lake County].
  • Other jails are far more liberal about phone use and will allow prisoners freedom to use the common pay phone as much as they like, as long as they don't hog it from others [source: Whitman County Jail].
  • Ohio jail administrators leave rules up to the individual prisons, but stipulate that phones shouldn't be kept in noisy areas, so that phone users can hear the person on the other end [source: Beach].

For federal prisons, the rules are a bit more unified. Before the 1980s, prisoners in federal facilities were commonly only allowed one personal phone call every three months [source: Fine]. Since then, however, the rules have been loosened, and inmates have the opportunity to make calls much more frequently. This, however, has meant that it has become easier for these inmates to conduct illegal activities over the phone, as monitoring all of these conversations is virtually impossible for the meager-sized staffs assigned to the duty.

On the next page, we'll talk about the practice and legality of tapping prison telephone calls.

Big Brother: Monitoring of Prison Telephone Calls

Phone tapping is legal in prisons, and they routinely record inmates' conversations.
Phone tapping is legal in prisons, and they routinely record inmates' conversations.
Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

If the First Amendment can't give prisoners unlimited phone access, surely the Fourth Amendment's protection from "unreasonable searches and seizures" can protect the privacy of the calls they are permitted to make. Not really, according to the courts. Except for an inmate's discussion with a lawyer, prisons are free to tap into personal phone conversations.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has pointed out that court cases stipulate prisoners can't expect the same privacy in jail as they'd be entitled to otherwise [source: BOP]. And, by the courts' logic, the security concerns constitute a reasonable search. In addition, because prisons make sure to give inmates ample warning that their conversations are recorded, prisoners haven't had much luck trying to challenge this practice [source: BOP].


Even though prisons are free to listen to telephone conversations, inmates still have managed to find clever ways around this surveillance. The Texas Offender's Handbook, for instance, clarifies that inmates must not talk in code or unintelligibly, which implies prisoners have attempted to do so in the past [source: TDCJ]. The Office of the Inspector General, which oversees the BOP, has issued concerns that there isn't enough man power or training for telephone monitoring staffs to successfully tackle the amount of crimes that are committed over prison phones [source: Fine]. To help monitor calls, prisons can employ voice authentication technology, which verifies the identity of the person called [source: Tehrani]. Voice authentication involves recording someone's voice and saving it. From then on, when the prisoner wants to call that person, the technology can compare the sound of that person's voice (including, for instance, its particular frequencies) to the saved file [source: Gilhooly].

In addition, questions have come up in U.S. courts about whether an inmate is allowed to talk on the phone in a foreign language, since this could inhibit the prison's ability to monitor the conversation. Although it's a complicated issue, prisons have tried to accommodate the inmates by merely requiring that they get permission from an authorized social worker to talk on the phone in a language other than English [source: Farber]. A social worker can interview the prisoner to assess his or her risk level before granting the inmate permission for such a phone call.

Even with big brother listening in, many prisoners have successfully circumvented his surveillance simply by obtaining a cell phone. We'll discuss cell phone use in prisons next.

Cell Phones in Prison: Contraband

Smuggled cell phones are a headache for prisons.
Smuggled cell phones are a headache for prisons.
iStockPhoto/Sean Locke

Another way for inmates to dodge prison eavesdropping is to gain their own phones. Prison authorities have found it's surprisingly easy for prison inmates to get their hands on working cell phones (with chargers to boot). One tipoff came from an inmate's mother who wrote to a warden in a Texas prison complaining that her son's cell phone reception was bad [source: Butterfield].

Cell phone accessibility has become a serious problem for prisons -- in addition to the crimes that inmates are known to commit over the phone. Gangs can organize themselves far more easily when members in prison have cell phones. For example, in 2006, incarcerated gang leaders in Brazil orchestrated large, synchronized riots using their cell phones, reportedly in order to prove their influence even behind bars [source: Reel]. The gang caused uprisings in more than 70 prisons, and meanwhile, members outside of the prison caused riots and wreaked havoc on public busses and police stations. Gangs transcend prison bars in the U.S., too, where gang leaders have been able to wield their power from inside prison walls -- even ordering gang murders [source: Dolan].


So, how do inmates get their hands on cell phones? Apparently, visitors and corrupt prison guards have been known to furnish these phones to inmates. To help combat this phenomenon, several states have attempted to crack down by making the repercussions more serious. Courts have allowed punishments for those found with a cell phone on the basis that these conversations cannot be monitored and are thus a security threat [source: Farber]. Several states have made it a crime for a prisoner to have a cell phone, and some are looking to raise that crime to the level of felony [source: Wolverson].

Unfortunately for prisons, cell phone jamming (interfering with radio waves to block cell phone communication) is not a viable option -- at least not in the U.S., where cell phone jamming devices are illegal as a result of property laws. In addition, even if prisons got permission to jam cell phone signals, the jammers could also interrupt the prison's radio signals [source: Butterfield]. Despite these concerns, jails in other countries, such as England, have implemented jammers because of the prevalence of cell phones [source: Northern Echo].

However, some argue that cell phone smuggling simply is a reaction to the outrageous costs inmates' families incur when they must accept collect calls from prison. We'll take a look at that controversy on the next page.

Crime Does Pay (for the Phone Company): Prison Telephone Services

A long distance collect call from within prison walls can cost dramatically more than one made at thesepay phones outside the prison.
A long distance collect call from within prison walls can cost dramatically more than one made at thesepay phones outside the prison.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

One of the most important advantages of the telephone is that it allows separated families to stay emotionally connected despite geographic and physical barriers. This can be especially important when it comes to prisoners. They can continue to talk to their kids, spouses or parents.

However, jails refuse to incur the costs of inmates' long distance phone calls. Consequently, jails require that prisoners always call collect, meaning that the receiving party accepts the charges of the call. Therefore, in order for prisoners to keep in touch with their spouses, parents and/or children, the family needs to foot the phone bill. When the phone bill arrives, many of these families notice that it is oddly high. That's because phone companies charge much more for a collect call from prison than they would a collect call from any other place.


Looking to cash in on the fact that prisoners are required to call collect, prisons enter into contracts with phone companies that charge exorbitant rates for those calls. In return for this contract, the phone company agrees to share the extra profits with the prison. For example, one protest group claimed the a 15-minute collect call made from an inmate at San Quentin Prison to Oakland would be $5, whereas an equivalent collect call made from outside prison would be about $2.55.

This practice is common in prisons all over the U.S., and New York state prisons have collected about $20 million a year by accepting 57 percent of the phone company's revenue from prisoners' calls [source: Kalish]. Although many believe these rates are unfair, prisons often defend the practice by pointing out that the money covers prison security costs -- for example, it would cover telephone call monitoring expenses. Courts have tried to hammer out this issue, but in many cases, they've decided that the practice doesn't violate equal protection rights, and the recipients who agree to accept the charges of the collect call are limited to the rights of the prisoner who makes the call [source: AELE]. Federal courts have also maintained that prisoners in federal prisons don't have a right to a specific phone rate.

In order to help out these families, a call forwarding service can act as the middle-man and cut the costs of these phone calls. This kind of service is set up close to a prison so that the prisoner calls its number locally. Then the service, which gets competitively-low long distance rates from the phone company, connects the prisoner to a long distance number. One of these services, "Outside Connections" in New York, claims it saves prisoners' families about 12 cents a minute [source: Kalish]. However, prisons claim these services are a security risk, and prisons have been known to punish inmates for using them.

Not all these complaints about unfair phone rates have fallen on deaf ears. South Dakota prisons have instituted a system where prisoners can set up prepaid debit accounts for prison telephone calls [source: SD DOC]. Not only does this let the inmate pay for his or her own phone calls, but the debit account system is a cheaper alternative to collect calls, according to the South Dakota Department of Corrections.

Though telecommunications can lead to security breaches and a variety of abuses, prisoners' phone calls can help them stay emotionally connected to family and friends. This connection, many say, actually contributes to a prisoner's rehabilitation [source: Fernandez].

For more information on prison and telecommunications technology, read the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • AELE. "AELE Law Library of Case Summaries: Corrections Law for Jails, Prisons and Detention Facilities: Telephone Access" Americans for Effective Law Enforcement. (May 15, 2008)
  • Beach, Susan, et al. "Ohio Jail Administrator's Handbook." Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. June 2005. (May 15, 2008)
  • Bureau of Prisons. "Bureau of Prisons Disclosure of Recorded Inmate Telephone Conversations: Memorandum Opinion For the Acting Assistant Attorney General Criminal Division" United States Department of Justice. Jan. 14, 1997.
  • Butterfield, Fox. "Inmates Use Smuggled Cell Phones to Maintain a Foot on the Outside." New York Times. June 21, 2004. (May 15, 2008)
  • Dolan, Matthew, Greg Garland. "Md. inmates' phone access is 'troubling.'" Baltimore Sun. Feb. 27, 2008. (May 15, 2008),0,3782982,full.story
  • Farber, Bernard J. "Legal Issues Pertaining to Inmate Telephone Use." AELE Monthly Law Journal. 2008 (2) Feb. 2008. (May 15, 2008)
  • Fernandez, Henry. "Phoning Home: High cost Calls Hinder Prisoner Rehabilitation." Center for American Progress. April, 9, 2007. (May 19, 2008)
  • Fine, Glenn A. "Use of Prison Telephones by Federal Inmates to Commit Crime." United States Department of Justice. April 6, 2007. (May 15, 2008)
  • Ford, Richard. "Security fear as prisoners are told: you have e-mail." The Times (London). Jan. 2, 2007.
  • Gilhooly, Kym. "Voice Authentication: Making Access a Figure of Speech." Computer World. Nov. 11, 2003. (May 19, 2008) http://www.computerworld.comsecuritytopics/security/story/0,10801,86897,00.html
  • Johnson, Kevin. "Inmates go to court to seek right to use the Internet." USA Today. November 23, 2006. (May 15, 2008)
  • Kalish, Jon. "Families of Prisoners Paying High Price for Collect Calls." National Public Radio. December 21, 2004. (May 15, 2008)
  • Northern Echo. "Mobile to be Jammed in Prison." The Northern Echo. Jan. 2, 2007.
  • Reel, Monte. "Brazillian City Wakes to Prison Gang's Power." Washington Post. May 21, 2006. (May 15, 2008)
  • Salt Lake County. "Prisoner Rules And Regulations Handbook (Online Version)." Salt Lake County Sherriff's Office. 2007. (May 15, 2008)
  • SD DOC. "South Dakota DOC -- FAQ-Inmate Debit Phone Account." South Dakota Department of Corrections. (May 15, 2008)
  • Simon, Mallory. "Student 'Twitters' his way out of Egyptian Jail." April 25, 2008. (May 15, 2008)
  • TDCJ. "Offender Orientation Handbook." Texas Department of Criminal Justice. November 2004. (May 15, 2008)
  • Tehrani, Rich. "Speech-World And The World Of Speech." Customer Inter@ction Solutions. June 2005. (May 15, 2008)
  • Whitman County Jail. "So, You're Going to Jail." Whitman County. 2007. (May 15, 2008)
  • Wolverson, Roya. "The Latest Contraband." Newsweek. September 24, 2007. (May 15, 2008)